No. 3: Redesigns roll out at a stunningly fast pace

An amazing year for quick-turnaround redesigns

As the economic footing for U.S. newspapers began crumbling even faster in 2008, it seemed something else was gaining speed as well: the pace of redesigns.

With several dozen U.S. redesigns launching last year, most seemed to be done more quickly than we’re used to seeing. And while economic decisions have often been the driver of redesigns in the past, the pace of layoffs, section collapsing and newsprint savings demanded a quicker response from those doing the redesigns.

“I think speed was a big thing,” said Michael Whitley, assistant managing editor for design at the Los Angeles Times, which launched its own redesign in late October. “Most redesigns are a nine month or a year process. Many of the 2008 redesigns can be measured in weeks not months.”

The common theme across most projects seemed to be doing more design in less space and doing it with fewer people.

And, after a few years of obfuscation for readers watching their papers shrink, it seemed to be the year of the more transparent redesign. It was clearer that much of what we were doing was responding to our changing organizations.

In his column accompanying the launch of the Knoxville News Sentinel in November, editor Jack McElroy said that the changes “frankly, are intended to reduce costs.”

Let the consolidation begin

“Some of the smaller paper projects seemed to be driven by a desire on the part of the chain owner to consolidate design and editing operations,” said Charles Apple, who chronicled nearly 30 redesigns on his Visual Editors blog beginning with David Dombrowski’s in-house effort on the Wisconsin State Journal right after the first of the year.

Apple also points, correctly, to the market reasons behind some redesigns. “In other cases, (it was) to format the hell out of the paper, to reduce the choices designers can make in order to make production work more cheaply. And, of course, you had a number of redesigns – at papers big and small – aimed at combining sections, at eliminating various features and at making it easier to reduce staff.”

And while consultants were still busy in the international market, another economic indicator of the U.S. redesign markets was the number of efforts that stayed solely in-house. “Many papers weren’t going to spend the money on the outside expertise,” said Bonita Burton, deputy managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel and incoming vice president of SND.

But that’s not to say all newspapers. Several did look to outside expertise.

In the flurry of summer redesigns, Alan Jacobson’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Garcia Media’s The Oklahoman were two consultant-led redesigns, for example.

What about content changes?

Even in the push to redesign quickly, content decisions still appeared to be getting serious consideration.

“In the redesign of the Orlando Sentinel, content was being evaluated in a really rigorous way,” Burton said.

The Sentinel launched their redesign in June, the first of the coordinated corporate effort that swept up all Tribune papers over the summer and fall. An early June “Talk to Sam” memo from Sam Zell told employees companywide that redesigns at every paper were coming but also that the company “will be assuming a 50/50 ad-to-editorial ratio base as a floor to right-size our papers.”

Zell went on to say, “We must find the balance between producing excellent products and producing products we can afford. And, we will find it.”

While corporate design directives are not new (Gannett comes quickly to mind), Tribune’s push to redesign so many large papers so quickly did feel extraordinary. And, perhaps to some outside the process, like a bit of a sideshow.

“A lot of papers were already thinking about redesigning and Lee Abrams came in and rocket fueled the conversation. I really do believe it began with a desire from the new owners to make the products more contemporary,” Burton said. “It collided with the economics, which sped up the timetable. It was exhausting and invigorating to do something on that scale in such a short amount of time.”

Was the shorter window necessarily a bad thing?

There are those who thought that redesigns that we born after long gestation periods tended to be more etched in stone. This year’s economic conditions and speed created a redesign more likely to constantly evolve.

“The market challenges allowed you to do some things more easily than you could before,” said Jonathon Berlin, the design and graphics editor at the Chicago Tribune, which also redesigned this year. “Sometimes the conditions you can’t do anything about break walls down and allow you to try something different.”

On that subject, Burton added, “You can avoid paralysis by analysis when it’s in such a short window.”

Whatever good came from the processes of this year’s class of redesigns, there are no shortage of skeptics, of course, wondering if any of these efforts will make much of a difference. Apple said, “I think we saw very few redesigns aimed at doing anything for the reader. Several seemed to be aimed at helping out the stockholders, though.”

And while Apple was generally very complimentary of all the individual Tribune efforts, there was no shortage of critics locally and nationally as Zell’s papers are very much under the microscope.

On his Visual Editors page, Jim McBee asked an even bigger question: Aren’t the 2008 class of redesigns just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? “I think the innovation needs to come in developing completely new products, and on the sales side,” he wrote. “We need to redesign the industry more than we need to redesign our pages or even our newsrooms.”

Where this all leads in 2009 remains to be seen. It’s definitely going to be another busy year.

Right off, we have a couple of very interesting contrasts to study. The deliberate, far-reaching transformation effort that has been going on at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for some time is set to debut relatively early in the year. And the two Detroit papers will undertake a radical new delivery schedule that will require some fresh design thinking in the first quarter.

VIDEO INTERVIEWS WHEN THE REDESIGNS LAUNCHED

Michael Whitley of the Los Angeles Times,
and Steve Cavendish of the Chicago Tribune

Q+A WITH TWO TRIBUNE DESIGN CHIEFS

Michael Whitley of the Los Angeles Times,
and Jonathon Berlin of the Chicago Tribune

Update: Almost all redesigns have an economic reason…Coverage changes to adjust to reader/advertiser opportunities; web width reductions; sectioning changes. So an economic driven redesign is not new. But what was different about this year’s crop of redesigns in the U.S. in terms of business/money driving the effort?

Michael Whitley: I think there is tremendous pressure to reverse the fortunes of newspapers with a fresh design. Its funny how a bad economy can suddenly bring to light areas where you might not have not kept up with the rest of the world.

Economic pressures have for sure collectively given newspaper designers more opportunity to change things than we would have been given during a stronger period in newspaper history. As an industry we have a tendency to go from “we refuse to participate” to a “we will be the best at…” stance on anything new or different. And we have a reluctance to evolve and improve when things are going well – probably the best time to consider changes that will improve our products.

I think the hard truth is design cannot solve the economic problems we are all facing. We can and should make our products better, and work to keep them relevant. And I am glad we made most of the changes we did. But I don’t think that alone will save us.

Jonathon Berlin: So it’s hard to find the positives in the last few years, but one thing the economic crisis has brought is change — I think we’ve seen newspapers try things that they normally wouldn’t have. Things that were sacred before for no particular reason are no longer that way. Papers are trying new ways to reach people.

Web width reduction forces designers to make different decisions in page structure and furniture. And while newspapers have never been that great at taking things away, smaller news hole forces new editing decisions.

I would also say that the big challenge in all of this is figuring out how to make a newspaper that readers can’t pass by. Design can help do this.

Update: Was there anything else that marked redesigns in 2008? Lack of consultant-led redesigns? Speed?

Michael Whitley: I think speed was a big thing. Most redesigns are a nine month or a year process. Many of the 2008 redesigns can be measured in weeks not months. It probably saved us from over thinking parts of it but it also meant decisions were made at light speed. It left us with the beginning of something, not the end finished result. What we launched with was a framework for building on going forward. From here I think we still fill in the things that would have been more complete on a longer timeline.

Not using outside consultants forced us to think more like them. There is a natural tendency to be attached, even defensive about your own work. Good consultants can look at what you do in a more detached way and in the past have helped people make a lot more progress than they could have on their own.

But since we were doing so much of this in house, we all had to be a little more detached to push things forward. We still used experts for some thing. Font Bureau for work on our typography, Jim Parkinson to redraw the nameplate…

It’s still good to use experts when you can.

Jonathon Berlin: I think things have been moving so quickly that the notion of a long, thought-out redesign has given way to constant adjustment. This is a good thing for newspapers. A Trib leader likes to talk about product development as a cycle of growth, plateau and decline. Other products whether detergent or breakfast cereal make big changes as they plateau and decline. They change packaging, marketing, parts of their core product. Newspapers, for one reason or another, haven’t done this very well.

The basic makeup of a daily is changing in front of our eyes forcing us to reevaluate every news decision we make. If we can stay strategic, keep our editing wits about us, hold on to the pieces of the craft that are most essential and valuable, what comes out of this will be better for customers and the money should follow.

Update: Corporate design decisions are nothing new (think Gannett), but we can’t really remember a chain getting such a push for different redesigns all at the same time. What was good about that? Bad?

Michael Whitley: The good is you can get the push you need to get things finished. We’ve been adjusting and evolving the design of the LA Times for nearly seven years and several leaders in starts and stops and that left the paper disjointed from section to section. We saw this as the opportunity to bring the whole paper together under one set of styles and augment and refine the work we had already done. So the push was good in that regard.

I think the toughest part was making sure to keep focused on our individual identities. Redesigning so many publications so close together had the potential to produce a oneness of thought – results that were more generic and we would all just do the same thing. But I think each publication was able to hear ideas and figure out how they would work or not work for readers in that market. It also meant a lot of ideas were coming up. Sort of an intellectual jam session. So you had a lot of ideas to chose from from a lot of bright people, not just what you thought of at your paper. And it was up to you to take the best of it for your market.

Jonathon Berlin: I think what the Tribune company has done in the past year is a pretty big deal. Unfortunately it’s been going on against the backdrop of some really hostile economics, so the positive change made across the country gets left behind. They basically came around to each paper in the chain and said: make a change that readers will notice, that fits your area. Five years ago this would have been the biggest splash in the pool, right now it all gets drowned out as we figure out how to get through the first few months of the year. Take a look at the work done in Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore, Orlando, Hartford, Chicago, LA. All these places really pushed hard to go to market with something bold, new, journalistic.

Update: Michael, most of the Tribune papers had a fairly dramatic look coming out of their redesigns, which was not the case in Los Angeles. Obviously this was a careful and conscious decision on the part of your leadership. In fact, it was more of a typographical refinement and section reorganization rather than a full-blown redesign. What was your thinking inside the LAT? What was the reaction from Chicago?

Michael Whitley: A big part of what we did was a philosophical redesign – really rethinking what boldness meant for the LAT. Its something you see especially in the Sunday paper and in the best journalism we put into the daily paper. We expanded the range. We also refined our typography and made a lot of small improvements to thinks that readers have wanted and asked for while, while making sure to keep some of the basic DNA of the Times. Keeping stories organized and making the typography simple and elegant was crucial. Our goal was a fresh take on a product with over 125 years of history. I think we accomplished that. Dramatic change can be a matter of perspective, and this is a pretty bold leap forward for the Times.

I think it would be fair to say our leadership in Chicago considers this a step in the right direction and that we all agree we need to see more of our best moments on a daily basis. But you can’t force it. It has to be real and worth it to mean anything to our readers.

Update: Jonathon, you’ve worked on a number of redesign projects. What was different about the Chicago Tribune? Clearly some sacred cows were cleared (the blue nameplate, for example). But there must have been some other things that felt extraordinary this time around.

Jonathon Berlin: We basically did away with all the sacred cows and set out to design a paper for 2008. We moved really fast, so we’re looking at the redesign as more of a starting point than an end point. A place where we start making real change. We didn’t want anything to be sacred and church-like as it was before.

 That being said, the thing that probably is most different, way beyond the sectioning changes and new fonts, is the new way of thinking about the paper: We’re thinking about engaging our audience rather than being ruled by a set of sometimes odd old-fashioned rules of newspapering. While we still have a lot to do, I think we’ve made big steps in this direction.

2008: The Year in News Design

Bill Gaspard is president of the SND Foundation and a deputy managing editor at the Las Vegas Sun.